Sunday, September 25, 2011

Road Trip to Meaningful Use Land

The voice on the phone seemed genuinely amused, “Let me see, the GPS can’t find our location, right?” Right. One U-turn by the burnt barn, a right after the Conoco station, another right at the end of the road, a left across the John Deere and two and a half hours from the city on highway W, brought me to a small and very white store front, housing a nail salon and a busy family physician practice. If I stretched out both arms, I could put one hand on the front desk, and place the other hand on the back of a waiting room chair. There were six chairs separated by small tables adorned with yellow silk flowers. A texting young man in jeans and baseball cap and a middle aged woman clad in floral attire and a big green purse, occupied two of those chairs. And then Bessie walked out the doctor’s office behind the usual and customary tennis ball footed aluminum walker which was almost as tall as her, and helped by the front desk lady made a slow trek to the one chair with arms on both sides. They were calling Joe to come pick her up. Joe was going to be there in ten, fifteen minutes, tops. It was 4 PM and they were running behind.

Looks can be deceiving though. This practice is an anomaly in the rural health continuum. There are computers in every room and not even a trace of paper charts. They’ve been on a top of the line Cadillac EMR since 2005, paying a small fortune every year for the privilege and for IT guys to support it. They kept up with all the upgrades and are on the latest and greatest certified version and would very much like to get the Meaningful Use incentive that will cover about three quarters of what they spent on EMR maintenance this year. The doctor would even like to try the patient portal. He thinks it could make him more efficient. They were all ready to go on October 1st, but then something happened. They started getting solicitation emails from their EHR vendor informing the doctor that there are several accessories that he must purchase in addition to his fully certified EHR, if he wants to qualify for Meaningful Use incentives, and of course, the Cadillac vendor has a special sale on accessories this month. Confusion and frustration were palpable around the huge, and completely out of place, formal pedestal dining table in the break room.

I’ve been to this movie before, and I never had any luck convincing this particular vendor that a certified complete EHR should allow the user to achieve Meaningful Use with no need for other bits and pieces that were not mentioned anywhere during the certification process. Unfortunately, those who certify EHRs and those who supervise the certifiers are turning a blind eye and a deaf ear to what is essentially a regulatory issue. In the break room the confusion and frustration were slowly changing to anger and the big plastic QT cups of pink lemonade that were brought in by someone didn’t help much. The conversation shifted to the various Meaningful Use measures and by now I wasn’t surprised to hear that they are doing rather well on most, from electronically prescribing everything to recording race and ethnicity and generating beautiful CCD clinical summaries. They weren’t sure how to give folks electronic copies of their medical records, but nobody ever asked for that and it’s highly unlikely that anyone will in the next three months. That should be good enough.

“Am I also good on immunizations? I don’t do many of those either… maybe a few HPV and some flu shots for elderly patients to save them a trip to the pharmacy. I shouldn’t have to report anything, right?” Eh… wrong, doc. Even if you only do one immunization in the next three months, you would have to test an immunization interface with the State registry, and your Cadillac EHR can’t generate the test file at this time although it is fully certified for Meaningful Use. I’ve been trying to get an answer from this vendor for months. I’ve asked CMS for a solution over a month and a half ago. I have written a blog post that got more page visits than anything I ever wrote before, and came up empty on all fronts. But the doctor seemed to be working his way to an innovative solution all by himself.

“So if I don’t give any shots after October 1st, I should be OK…. We have one bottle of HPV left anyway and Marcie needs her shot… I have a week to do that… They pay peanuts for shots, you know…. They’ll just have to go to the pharmacy…. It’s not that far…. I really don’t give many shots anyway… Yep. It should work… “. October is flu season, and I was wondering if Joe picked up Bessie by now and if the pharmacy is on their way home. I wanted to know if the pharmacy had a chair with arms for Bessie and if the pharmacy folks would also call Joe to pick her up after waiting in line for her flu shot. But instead, I just found myself mumbling that this wasn’t really the intent, but yeah, this should work.

A couple of months ago, I heard a story about a geriatrician who chose to stop giving courtesy flu shots to his patients because of Meaningful Use. I found it hard to believe then. Needless to say, I believe it now. I am certain this was not the intent at CMS and I am pretty sure this was not on the Meaningful Use roadmap at ONC. I am not in the habit of pleading and begging the powers to be to do the right thing, but I will make an exception this once. This unremarkable little practice in the middle of nowhere could have been the poster child for successful EHR adoption. Can somebody at HHS, CMS or ONC help these small practices stand up to the greedy whims of a powerful EHR vendor? And above all, can we do something to help Bessie keep her “I” in Health IT, please?

Disclaimer: In order to protect their privacy, the names of all people and locations mentioned in this post have been changed, as have certain physical characteristics, quotations and other descriptive details.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

The Power of Empowerment

Grant Wood, American Gothic (1930)
Housing is expensive if you want to live in a Tudor style mansion on a half-acre wooded lot. Housing is a lot cheaper if you choose to rent a two-bedroom apartment on the fourth floor of a square building with no elevator, 45 minutes away from your workplace. And it won’t kill you to rent. Food is also very expensive if you want a varied, fresh and gourmet diet, but food can be cheap, and it won’t kill you to cook your own food and stick to a diet of mashed potatoes and boiled cabbage, with an occasional bit of tripe. Health insurance is very expensive if you insist on having all your medical needs covered by an insurance policy. Health insurance can be a lot cheaper if you pay for most of your medical care yourself and if you only buy limited coverage for the eventuality of falling off your dressage horse, and cheaper still if you promise to drop dead shortly thereafter.  Health care itself is very expensive if you insist on receiving medical care from highly trained professionals, using cutting edge technology in state of the art facilities. Health care can be a lot cheaper if you find a way to take care of your health without involving doctors and hospitals and their overpriced opinions, chemicals, machines and unnecessary procedures. It’s all about consumers empowered to freely make their own choices: mansion or rented apartment, steak or tripe, Cadillac or catastrophic health insurance, ICU or alcohol rub…..

The Consumer Empowerment terminology originated in the health insurance industry to mark the transition from having insurers pay for every cut, bruise and sniffle, to the more responsible way of paying for much of your health care directly out of your own pocket leaving the insurer responsible for rarely incurred catastrophic expenditures. The newly empowered consumers discovered that health insurance is now much more affordable, and perhaps even unnecessary, while health insurers discovered that magically, their profits are also improving, probably because empowered consumers seem to generate significantly less reimbursement claims, than the irresponsible and unempowered crowd served by public entitlements.

Although empowering consumers to pay for their own health care proved to be a stroke of genius, we have a long way to go before the overall cost of health care is contained. The problem here is that over the years Americans figured out that staying healthy doesn’t really pay off and quite the opposite is true, because once you get really sick there are all sorts of freebies made available to you, from amputations to chemotherapy to mastectomy to castration - a veritable smorgasbord to choose from, and the temptation is huge since the monetary value of these free goodies can add up to more than many people make in a lifetime of hard work. Not to mention the fatherly physician figures busy offering you helping after helping of a carefully selected array of the most expensive fare available. And then an innovative idea was put forward by selfless luminaries, and is catching on like brushfire after a long global warming induced drought. If health care insurers were able to cut costs and increase profit by empowering consumers to insure themselves, could health care providers achieve the same spectacular success by empowering consumers to care for themselves?

Empowering consumers to engage in their own health care may rank up there with cold fusion and perpetuum mobile in its transformational potential for humanity. Empowering millions of people to actively manage their medical care, by making their own medical decisions, breaking free of the old-fashioned paternalistic directives of financially conflicted physicians, and restoring the nineteenth century self-reliant approach to health care, will slash costs, improve quality and eliminate disparities in health and health care in one patient-centered fell swoop. And how do we accomplish such monumental task? We harness the unlimited power of the Internet. This is the Information age, and just like the Industrial age brought a car and a television set to every home, the Internet puts the entire world’s knowledge at the fingertips of all humanity with astounding effects already visible in the education attainment of our children. But the world’s knowledge is missing a vital piece of information pertinent to our goals in health care.

Enter Health Information Technology (HIT). HIT will pry loose the last piece of the puzzle – the secretive documentation amassed and jealously guarded by doctors in their offices. Information kept in detailed color coded charts and recorded in strange cult-like symbols that prevent anybody but doctors from understanding the contents. Once that information is made available to computers and the thousands of new high tech tools chomping at the bit to translate, analyze and recommend what you should buy to treat any ailment ever recorded, the Internet will bring this knowledge to every hamlet and fuel a renaissance of rugged Americanism where every man woman and child will be empowered to manage his or her own health care. The amount of money spent on health care will decrease sharply since the time people spend researching, diagnosing and treating themselves at home, and the cost of technology tools and over the counter remedies to facilitate these activities are not considered health care expenses. The quality of such care will be exponentially improved by harnessing the knowledge and insights of millions, instead of just one medical school graduate. And by definition, the Internet eliminates all disparities, as evidenced by the blossoming democracy in Egypt.

So much empowerment may seem a bit daunting to some who grew accustomed to getting advice from doctors. No need to worry though because this will be a gradual and gentle process. It’s not like you will have to perform an appendectomy on yourself come Monday morning, although it wouldn’t hurt to start practicing simple things like freezing warts at home and researching minor chest pain on Internet boards. When you finally keel over in pain, or are otherwise ready to confront a doctor, you must prepare yourself mentally to act as empowered as possible. While the civic minded insurers have been happy to empower people and let them spend their own money any way they saw fit, doctors find it much harder to relinquish control of their patients. You need to come in with all your symptoms researched, a tentative diagnosis formulated and most important, a preferred course of treatment that fits your cultural values and preferences. You need to resist your doctor’s efforts to tempt you into partaking in the smorgasbord of free tests and procedures, some of which will be harmful to you and others will be very unpleasant for your friendly insurer. If you concur with your doctor’s opinion and have some tests done, make sure you understand WBCs and RBCs, units and normal ranges for the lab you are going to use after shopping around for a good price, and be sure to validate whether you need a differential count or not. The Internet is your friend and all this information is available online. But whatever you do, don’t leave your doctor’s office without an electronic copy of your medical records in a computable format, because any day now, there will be a free app for all these decisions and iWatson will empower you to care for yourself and your loved ones in ways that the log-cabin pioneers couldn’t even dream about. Better, faster and infinitely cheaper.